Henry Cowell- Hymn and Fuguing Tune #18

Among the works composed for me since 1932 Henry Cowell's Hymn and Fuguing Tune #18 for Soprano and Contrabasso saxophones is unique. What prompted the composer to chose these instruments?

In the early sixties both Henry Cowell and I taught during the summer session at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Every year I played with the Eastman Chamber Orchestra, an exquisite group conducted by Frederick Fennell, and together with my students I gave a recital, featuring old and new music as well as different combinations of saxophones. And there was much chamber music of mixed instrumentation.

Such unusual programs interested Cowell, who never missed any of these concerts. He liked the expressive, melodic style of my playing no less than the direct rapport with which I often surprised my listeners. With a magnanimity I often found among composers, Cowell enriched my repertoire in 1961 with his Air & Scherzo of which I have over 150 documented performances. And that was not all.

After years of search I finally had found a Contrabasso saxophone. It took a long time to get it into playable condition. Then Lynn Sams, the president of the Buescher Corporation, brought it to Rochester so that I could test blow it. It worked. I was elated. What a sound! I simply had to present the grand dad of the saxophone clan in one of my recitals - but in what music? To my knowledge nothing original existed. The piece should be impressive and amusing. That could best be done together with the Sopranino, the mini member of the family, a good friend of my daughter Carina. Mehul's Rondeau Basque came to my mind. Carina took the melody while I played the basso line, 3 octaves down. And when the listeners had adjusted to this novel duet we switched parts where the melody proceeds in staccato sixteenths, eventually to end the piece again with the parts where they belong. Great hilarity. When after the concert Cowell signaled his amusement, I quipped "This might just be what you need for your next composition." That was on July 10, 1964. A week later at breakfast in the Eastman dormitory Cowell handed me a few sheets of music, remarking "here is your new piece." I hardly could believe my eyes. The ink was barely dry. There it was! A piece for soprano and contrabasso saxophones. As soon as my daughter and I were in my studio we began playing. Blowing the contrasbasso takes plenty of air. For rehearsing, a baritone would do, one octave above the contrabasso. We continued for while, looked at each other in disbelief - "it does not sound right!" No, it didn't. Back to the contrabasso. Yes, that was the right sound. With admirably accurate perception the composer had listened to an instrument he probably never had heard before. No substitute would do. We tried it a few more times. There was no doubt. Henry Cowell knew what he wanted. He had "heard" it before he wrote it down. Carina and I performed the piece often here and in Europe.

Sigurd M. Rascher 1993

Copyright Sigurd M. Rascher 1993

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